10 questions for Julian Lage: "A lot of tension and related issues can be connected to how we breathe as guitarists"

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(Image: © Nathan West)

He’s one of the finest jazz players of his generation, but how will Julian Lage handle the 10 questions we ask everyone?

1. What was your first guitar and when did you get it?

“My first guitar was a Fender Stratocaster that my parents gave me when I was five. My father had started playing the year before and I asked my folks for a guitar. They said if I still wanted one when I was five, they would get one.”

2. What guitar would you save if the building was burning down?

The building's burning down? I would be inclined to save a Linda Manzer Blue Note guitar I’ve been playing for years

“That’s a tough one. I would be inclined to save a Linda Manzer Blue Note guitar I’ve been playing for years. It’s the guitar I played the most when I was growing up. I started to play it when I was about 11, she sent it to me to try out and said if I liked it we could work something out, pay over time, low pressure. It became the foundation of all my studies as a jazz guitar player and it occupies a big part of my journey.

“Ironically, my house did burn down in the recent fires in Santa Rosa and we lost everything, so it’s a touchy subject. But in a way I don’t think any of it really matters, having gone through that.”

3. What’s the oldest guitar you currently own?

“A 1932 Gibson L-5. I was looking for a loud acoustic guitar that I could play with a five-piece ensemble, which was my old band – cello, bass, percussion, saxophone and guitar. Doing some research I realised the L-5 was a dream, it had the focus and volume that I craved.

“I spent a lot of time with that guitar and it really challenged me in the best ways – my technique, my sound… I eventually decided to go in a completely different direction, but it was such a robust guitar and, weirdly, the oldest one as well.”

4. What plectrums do you use?

“I use Blue Chip picks, I love them. I usually use a TP50 for electric and TD50 for acoustic. But they make so many great sizes and shapes, each one does something different and cool.”

5. When was the last time you practised?

“I practised yesterday working with a metronome. I learned a cool thing from a video of Carole Kaye online where she shows how to play a bassline in a way that makes the metronome feel like the most in-the-pocket drummer you’ve ever heard.”

6. If you could change one thing about a recording you’ve been on, what would it be and why?

“There are a few recordings where I’ve realised how I want to mix the guitar way after it’s been finished and released. It’s not to say I didn’t like it at the time, it’s just that sometimes I would think, ‘Oh, now I know how I would have mic’d that!’ But I don’t have a great sense of regret for anything, even for things that I didn’t love the way they sounded.

“One of the things that is true for anyone who records is trying to crack the code of understanding whether something sounds like it does because of how it’s recorded or if it’s because of the way it was played or if it’s a combination.”

7. What’s the worst thing that has happened to you on stage?

“It’s hard to say. I feel grateful that there isn’t any one thing that jumps to mind. I’m so thankful to be able to play on stage with other musicians and for the community. That is such a dream, even when it’s challenging.”

8. What’s the closest you’ve come to quitting music?

My advice to my younger self would be to breathe more comfortably when I played

“I remember being young and wanting to take a break because I felt lopsided. Almost like I was starting to get hyper-focused on working and not really seeing anything else. I remember so vividly talking to my parents and them helping me see that you could be focused on one area, but also have lots of other interests. I’m so grateful for that lesson.”

9. What aspect of playing guitar would you like to be better at?

“I want to have a stronger sense of time and groove, as well as accompaniment. Also, I want to work on different kinds of soloing and creating stronger narratives.”

10. What advice would you give your younger self about the guitar if you had the chance?

“I would encourage myself to breathe more comfortably when I played. I realise a lot of tension and related issues can be connected to how we breathe as guitarists. And it’s something that everyone has a different approach to, which I love.

“When I was young I had a concept of the guitar where I kind of squeezed myself. I felt it took a lot of strength, a lot of muscle and there was this huffing and puffing thing I did and it produced certain results, but in retrospect I realised I was holding my breath as a default for so many years. I was always in a rush.”

Julian Lage’s new album Modern Lore is out now on the Mack Avenue label.

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